Having had to survive an early-morning pitch inspection, it would not have surprised the visitors from Bedfordshire that they were to be greeted by a rather soggy surface. With persistent drizzle and a strong south-easterly cross-field breeze throughout it was a testament to both clubs that the game was as open and exciting as it proved to be.
Last season was the first time Tunbridge Wells had played Bedford Athletic and the East Midlanders had the edge. Having won 35-22 in Bedford they then escaped in March with a remarkable 31-31 draw at St Marks having trailed 31-14 with just 7 minutes left. And it was very nearly a case of deja-vu for the home supporters as Wells were confronted with a fierce late fight-back. Thankfully, “nearly” is the key word here…..
A minute’s silence was held before kick-off to mark the passing of John Exall, the club’s eldest Life Vice President, who died last week aged 90. It was the home team that then started the game playing down the St Marks slope in the first half. Simon Whatling made only one change to the side that had won at Tring with first-choice scrum half Eddie Croft returning for Alex Mason.
Wells started strongly with Agy Eukaliti and Ben Whale driving strongly. Whale (who also now coaches the clubs Under 14 squad) has been in superb form all season and was again prominent throughout. Mike Doherty and skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy made breaks and after the latter lost the ball during a period of penalty advantage it was outside half Frank Reynolds who opened the scoring with a penalty from 25 metres on 8 minutes. 3-0.
Bedford Athletic’s first period of possession now ensued after Wells were clumsy at the re-start. After a series of forward drives visiting outside half Leo Mortimer levelled the scores with a 40 metre penalty to make it 3-3 after 12 minutes. Despite the slippery conditions Bedford played their way back into Wells territory and were granted another penalty for not releasing at the breakdown. Mortimer slotted the closer-in kick to make it 3-6 just two minutes later.
The home team now had comfortably their best period of play in the opening 40 minutes. A deft Taylor-Dennehy kick earned Wells an attacking line-out 25 metres from the Athletic line. Tui Tauaika consistently hit jumpers Whale and Nick Doherty throughout and did so again here only for the ensuing maul to be adjudged to have formed an accidental offside, or “truck and trailer” as it is affectionately known. Fortunately for Wells referee Toby Rowe, who managed the game well, had been playing an advantage for Whale being impeded whilst in the air. This led to another line-out but this time just 5 metres out. Tauaika found Doherty at the back of the line and as the Wells maul moved forward it was given fresh momentum as all the backs (with the exception of Croft and Harvey Colangelo) joined in to power over the line. To the delight of the team it was popular hooker Stuart Nicholls who came up with the ball for his first try at this level. Reynolds conversion was pushed wide so after 18 minutes it was 8-6.
Whilst the visitors had some success in breaking through close to the ruck, the Wells’ defence in midfield was proving resolute. Charley Smith, Whale, the Doherty brothers and Eukaliti made big hits. An excellent Croft box kick gained good field position for the men from St Marks and when a James Pancaldi tackle forced a turnover, another clever Taylor-Dennehy kick gave Wells a dangerous attacking position with a line-out 30 metres out on the left wing.
Doherty caught the ball and Wells made ground from the initial maul. When the ball was spun wide George Montgomery cleverly used a basketball-style pass to find Taylor-Dennehy who then put Colangelo into space. The flying winger looked destined to score but a superb cover tackle thwarted him 5 metres short. Wells were not to be denied though. Showing great patience Nicholls and Eukaliti took the ball forward before Mike Doherty added momentum. Quick recycling saw his younger brother pick up the ball and he is almost impossible to stop when he gets a sniff of the goal line. A try to Nick Doherty under the posts and with Reynolds popping over the conversion on 26 minutes it was now 15-6.
Could the home team now build on this period of authority ahead of the interval? The answer was sadly to be ‘no’ as some poor discipline and lack of precision combined to put themselves under pressure. Whilst the forwards were able to sack an attacking Bedford line-out the respite was to be temporary. Several phases of play set up a midfield position which was fully exploited by Mortimer whose clever grubber kick was gathered by visiting number eight James Wallace for a try near the posts. Mortimer added the extra two to make it 15-13 on the half hour.
Wells gained a penalty after an opponent kicked the ball through the ruck but summing up the lack of control characterising this passage of play before half-time, the line-out was lost and then a scrum penalty was conceded. The front row of Tuauika, Nicholls and Carl Straeche battled manfully at the set-piece but they did need the assistance of Nick Doherty at number eight who was superb in controlling the ball at the base when the scrum did move backwards. Eukaliti and Croft combined to steal Bedford’s ball but Wells could not get out of their own half and when Colangelo was adjudged to be in front of the kicker the visitors had another attacking toe-hold deep in the home side’s 22. A rolling maul was set and surged forward with lock Dan Sim being the try scorer. Mortimer added the conversion to bring it to 15-20 on 37 minutes.
There was still time for the dangerous Max Hobbs to initiate an attack and when a penalty was awarded Wells ended the half with a scrum just 5 metres out, However, the defending forwards got the upper hand and were able to clear the ball. Half time 15-20.
There is little doubt that the home side will have been disappointed to be behind at the break, especially as they had been playing down the slope. They needed to re-focus and, in particular, cut out the penalties that had littered the preceding 15 minutes. However, another home infringement allowed the visitors to take early advantage of the slope and pin Wells back. When Athletic’s Charlie Darlow and Steve Smith combined they had a promising attacking position. However, it was Bedford who were now imprecise and a thunderous Whale tackle saw the ball run loose 35 metres form the Wells line. Reacting quickest, Reynolds hacked the ball forward and two kicks later he was almost at the Bedford line. However, the bouncing ball was now dangerously near the left touch-line too but showing great dexterity (and no little skill) the outside half manged to gather the ball and flick it back just inside the field of play and the supporting Hobbs was on hand to cross. An “opportunist” try if ever there was one but Reynolds’ superb touchline conversion into the wind brought its value to seven points and put Wells back into the lead at 22-20 on 46 minutes.
Ollie Allman came on at full back, replacing Colangelo, which saw Taylor-Dennehy move to the right wing. When the re-start failed to travel 10 meters Wells were about to embark on another dominant period of play. Indeed, this one was to prove crucial and match-winning. Tauaika and Whale carried strongly resulting in a penalty. Reynolds pushed this one wide but when the visitors attempted a quick drop-out Straeche was able to block it and earn an attacking scrum. Josh Hawkins replaced Smith in the second row and immediately made a robust carry. When Bedford were penalised for illegally stopping Eukaliti Reynolds made no mistake with an easier kick. 25-20 after 55 minutes.
From the restart Nick Doherty took it powerfully back at Bedford and an excellent Reynolds kick gained significant territory when the return effort when straight into touch. Whale again rose high to catch the ball and when the ball was spun wide Taylor-Dennehy was subject to a high tackle. Reynolds sent the penalty deep into Athletic territory and Wells pinned them back to their line with a series of ‘hammer’ pick and go drives.A scrum was awarded and Wells attacked again from close range before referee Rowe awarded a penalty in front of the posts. He must have been considering a yellow card but Wells had to be content with the 3 points courtesy of Reynolds’ boot and a two-score leeway. 28-20 on 61 minutes.
This was very sensible game management and when Whale and Doherty (Nick) again combined to carry the ball back powerfully enabling a raking Reynolds kick into Bedford territory, the signs were now looking much more positive. Chris Brown now entered the fray for the industrious Pancaldi. Wells soon had a scrum 35 metres out but were put under pressure and it needed Hobbs to tidy up the play. However, his loose pass was picked up by Mike Doherty on half-way and the centre burst through two tackles to find open space on the right and support either side of him. He drew the full-back before passing inside to Montgomery who then immediately shifted the ball back out to Taylor-Dennehy who galloped over from 30 metres for a fine try that was again converted by Reynolds. 66 minutes played and the try bonus-point secured as the score moved to 35-20.
The home side needed to recall the tenacity that the visitors had displayed earlier in the year and it was no surprise that the men in red re-doubled their efforts now. It took excellent defence from Wells to keep them at a safe distance and their supporters were no doubt relieved when the home side were awarded a scrum on their own 22. However, under pressure they tried to run the ball out of harms way rather than put boot to ball and this only gave Athletic fresh impetus. After a series of drives Sims crossed for his second try out wide and although the conversion was missed nerves were beginning to jangle. 35-25 on 74 minutes.
And those nervous butterflies soon became great big moths when loose defending succumbed to a Steve Smith dummy 40 metres out and the centre then proceeded to run in untouched for Bedford’s own bonus-point try. The simple conversion was surprisingly put wide but with 4 minutes plus injury time to play this game was up for grabs……again. 35-30.
Could Wells hold on this time? It looked ominous when a scrum penalty led to a Bedford line-out 40 metres out. With this maul being halted illegally another penalty was granted and Whale received a yellow card for his cynical intervention form the side. Another line-out and maul was formed but this time just 20 metres away from the home side’s line. However, solid defence held this at bay forcing the visitors to move the ball wider and a strong Nick Doherty tackle dislodged the ball and when Mike Doherty kicked the ball off the game was over.
If Messrs Whatling, Croall, Scully and their players needed reminding how tight and competitive a league London& South East Premier is then here was another example. Despite dominating large swathes of the match Wells could not quite put Bedford Athletic away. However, it is greatly to their credit that they took the bonus-point win that they deserved on the overall balance of play.
This week is a well earned rest and recuperation one before Wells (now up to 4th) travel up to Sidcup (8th) on Saturday 7th December for a 2pm kick off
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Harvey Colangelo (Ollie Allman),Mike Doherty, George Montgomery, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Eddie Croft; Tui Tauaika, Stuart Nicholls, Carl Straeche, Agy Eukaliti, Charley Smith (Josh Hawkins), Ben Whale, James Pancaldi (Chris Brown), Nick Doherty.
Wells Second XV went down 35-5 at Westcombe Park IIs with Matt Spicer scoring the try, whilst the Social 3s lost 65-15 at Sheppey II. Adam Wratten bagged a brace of tries with Dan Miller crossing for the other one.
Elsewhere in the League
Wimbledon maintained their six point lead (now on 54) with an impressive 7-25 win at Hertford. Their closest pursuers also gained bonus-point wins to move to 48 with Guernsey over-whelming the visiting Sidcup 74-13, and Rochford Hundred bouncing back from last week’s surprise home slip-up to win 16-25 at Dorking. We now sit fourth on 34 points with Sevenoaks (17-29 victors at CS Stags) and Hertford next on 31. Dorking are 7th on 26 ahead of our next opponents Sidcup who have slipped to 8th on 25. There is then an 8 point gap to Tring (18-20 winners at London Irish Wild Geese) and Bedford Athletic on 18 points. CS Stags are 11th two points back, with the Wild Geese filling the first relegation spot on 15 points. They are joined by Brighton after their convincing 34-10 win over Guildford who are now adrift at the bottom on 7 points.
Next weekend is a rest one before games start again on 7th December and apart from our game (of course) the clear highlights are 1st v 2nd when Wimbledon host Guernsey and 3rd v 5th as Sevenoaks travel to Rochford.